Interview - Dan Kennedy

Interview: Dan Kennedy, Senior Writer & Media Critic, The Boston Phoenix: 10th July 2003

In keeping with Media Man Australia's tradition of tackling any subject, we explore the world of media journalism, through the eyes and words of one of American's most respected and knowledgeable media writers, Dan Kennedy.

Dan discusses the media landscape, life and his upcoming book.

What's your background?

I am the senior writer and media critic at the Boston Phoenix, where I have worked since 1991. From 1989-90 I was the editor and publisher of MetroNorth Magazine, a news-and-lifestyle publication for the suburbs north of Boston.

From 1979-88 I worked at the Daily Times Chronicle, in Woburn, a suburb of Boston, where I was a staff writer.

I have a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northeastern University (1979)and a master's degree in American history from Boston University (1984).

I don't move around much -- I have always lived in the Boston area.

What do you prefer to report on and why?

That's a hard question. Maybe because everyone longs for the greener field on the other side of the fence, I guess I would say that I like to report on real people, which I don't often get to do as a media critic.

What positive differences have you made to the landscape of the American media business?

Oh, hell, I don't know. I guess I'm quite proud of the body of work I produced covering the presidential campaign -- and the way the media covered the campaign -- in 2000, for which I received the 2001 Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism from the National Press Club. I'd like to think I punctured a few media balloons, especially over the press's untoward love affairs with John McCain and Bill Bradley and its brutal treatment of Al Gore.

What aspects of the media business do you both most enjoy and dislike?

I like being more or less off on my own, writing pieces that no one else is going to write. I despise pack journalism. At best, you do as well as everyone else; at worst, you get beaten. Ugh. Plus, if the AP is doing a decent job of covering something, who wants to be one of the 100 other reporters covering exactly the same story?

What motivates you?

A mortgage and two kids, ages 12 and 10. Plus a rather large ego, but shhhh!

Tell us a little about your latest book?

It's a book about the culture of dwarfism, titled "Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes," and it will be published in the US by Rodale this October. It's partly memoir -- our 10-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is an achondroplastic dwarf -- partly journalism, partly historical research, and partly cultural criticism.

I try to look at dwarfism as a metaphor for difference and ask some of the big questions: Do we accept difference? Do we celebrate it? Do we fear it? Would we eliminate it if we had the chance -- which, thanks to genetic advances, we increasingly will?

In the course of the book I take a pretty wide-ranging look at different aspects of dwarfism: history, culture, medicine, and science. I've got quite a few interviews with fascinating people, too.

You can learn more about the book at my website,

What's your take on the new FCC rulings?

It's a disaster. The FCC is way too impressed with the fact that there are more media outlets than ever before, and not nearly worried about the fact that those outlets have fallen into the hands of fewer and fewer owners.

Rather than allowing further monopolization, the FCC should be pushing the other way. It would be especially important and useful to reverse the complete destruction we've seen of commercial radio by re-imposing strict ownership limits.

Is the American public fighting back? Why and how?

There are some grassroots activists who say they've been energized by this fight, and there are signs that the public is far more outraged than it was in 1996, when Congress passed the last big deregulation bill.

There are also some signs that some members of Congress are going to make a big issue of this. I'm not too optimistic, but you never know.

What news media organizations do your respect and trust the most, and why?

Not to sound like a boring mainstream weenie, but the two news organizations that I trust the most, and that are the most comprehensive, are the New York Times and National Public Radio. They simply are unequaled in their depth, their breadth, and their essential fairness.

Neither is perfect, of course, and the recent Jayson Blair scandal at the Times revealed all kinds of unsavory truths about the paper. Obviously reforms are needed.

Our local public radio station carries the BBC World Service for quite a few hours a day. Normally I find it pretty boring, but it was invaluable during the war in Iraq, when the American networks covered the war as "militainment" -- a word coined by James Poniewozik, the media critic for Time magazine. I'd never heard of the word until I read Danny Schechter's new book, "Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How the Media Failed to Cover the War on Iraq."

Naturally I have high regard for The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (although not the latter's nutty editorial page).

I read and admire a wide range of magazines and websites -- The New Republic, Slate, Salon, Romenesko's (a must for someone in my business), a few of the better blogs (Josh Marshall, Daily Howler).

I'm a big fan of Danny Schechter's and of his daily blog, too.

What's your views on embedded journalism?

I thought it worked fairly well. The real issue was how embedded journalism was used. For television, it became in too many instances the principal way by which they offered "militainment." Our all-news cable channels were especially bad, offering little but embedded reports and jingoism of the most mindless kind. (CNN was a bit better than its rivals, the Fox News Channel and MSNBC.)

By contrast, the quality papers -- the Times, the Post, and, locally, the Boston Globe -- used their embeds as part of a broader package of stories each day, which I think was the right way to do it.

Will the internet eventually put newspapers out of business?

Well, yes and no. Ultimately the means of distribution are not that important. Someday, whether it's in five, 10, or 50 years, I think newspapers will be distributed electronically, most likely over the Internet or something like it. So, no, the Internet won't put newspapers out of business, but it will (and already has) drastically changed their business.

Are newspapers quick enough to make the cross over to websites / web portal, so they don't loose their audience?

See above. In the US, the most heavily trafficked news websites are parts of large news organizations -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the networks, and the like. The biggest problem is that real journalism is expensive, and the Web -- at least to date -- forces them to give away their content at a moment when there is very little advertising on the Web.

Describe freedom of the press in America?

As the late, great media critic A.J. Liebling observed, "Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one." I'm grateful to work under the protections of the First Amendment, and I'm lucky to work at an alternative weekly, where I have a lot of freedom to cover stories that I want to cover the way I want to cover them. But -- and I really don't want to sound like some sort of lefty, because I'm really a mainstream liberal -- freedom of speech generally remains subservient to corporate interests.

Anyone can say anything he likes within the confines of the libel laws, but it can be very difficult to get yourself heard.

The blogging movement is promising as an alternative to corporate voices,but I don't see much sign that anyone is paying much attention except other bloggers and a few people in the media.

What are the highlights of your career?

Well, I mentioned the 2000 presidential campaign. I guess I would also say that, in the 1980s, I covered the Woburn toxic-waste trial, which was later turned into the very fine book (and very mediocre movie) "A Civil Action," by Jonathan Harr.

A number of families in Woburn alleged that their children had contracted leukemia as the result of toxic chemicals dumped into the groundwater by several large industrial firms. It was a fascinating story, as well as a privilege to get to know some of the families who brought the case.

What accolades and awards meant the most to you?

See above.

What works of yours are your favorites, and why?

Well, I'm going to say my forthcoming book!

How do you balance business and a social life?

I put in a lot of hours, but since I'm a writer for a weekly rather than a beat reporter for a daily, I have some freedom as to how I allocate those hours. I go out very little. My social life tends to revolve around my family.

Who are your biggest supporters?

Although I work in a very supportive environment at the Phoenix, my biggest supporters are definitely my wife, Barbara Kennedy, and my kids, Tim and Becky.

Who are your biggest detractors?

I don't know. I get a lot of nasty e-mail, but I'm not aware of anyone conducting any sort of campaign against me.

I do rip people pretty hard, so I must have some enemies out there, but I tend not to hear from them.

Have you ever found yourself if court over anything you reported on?


What news media outlets do you contribute to?

I'm a full-time employee of the Boston Phoenix. I have written for The New Republic, Slate, Salon, and some smaller publications, but I keep it to a minimum because, as a media critic, it's awkward to write for publications that I might write *about*.

I am a semi-regular member of a weekly media panel that is part of "Greater Boston," a public-affairs show on WGBH-TV, the local public television station.

What is the scope of your relationship with

Zilcho. I wrote an every-other-week media column for them for most of 1996, and wouldn't mind writing for them again, but haven't.

What are your current projects?

Getting ready for Boy Scout summer camp with Tim. (I am an assistant scoutmaster of our troop.) And preparing for the release of "Little People." Man, it's summer up here in the Northern Hemisphere. I don't want to deal with no stinking projects.

Thank you so much for your interest. I hope you find at least some of this usable.


Editors note: This was very usable to say the least. Dan Kennedy is a man with strong opinions on the media, and backs it up, week after week with facts. Anyone wanting to keep up to date with the media business in the United States, and indeed the world, needs to read Dan Kennedy's words - end of story! We will continue to hear a great deal more from Dan Kennedy. Greg Tingle (Media Man Australia).


Boston Phoenix medialog